When Caitlin Abram was in the sixth grade, she joined an after-school drama program at her North Laurel school instead of taking the bus home.
"It was fun. You got to hang around after school with your friends. You got to kind of take a break from school, and the teachers really made it fun," said the 13-year-old Murray Hill Middle School eighth-grader, who has continued her after-school activities since.
As a part of a statewide effort, Howard County's Children Services Administration will spend its portion of a two-year, $9.2 million grant to attract children to such after-school programs.
Howard, which received $400,750, will award the money next month to new and existing programs such as Murray Hill's, which is financed on a shoestring by donations and volunteer hustle, said former PTA President Sheila Abram, Caitlin's mother.
Dale Jackson, Howard County's children's services administrator, said the county is accepting applications until Sept. 29. She hopes the grant will pay for three or four new programs and fund other programs. .
"We want as many choices as we can have for these programs. We're trying to get operating as quickly as possible."
Worried about what many children ages 10 to 14 are doing after school, before their parents get home from work, the General Assembly set aside money last year for a two-year after-school program. The grants, awarded partly based on need and partly competitively, range from $1.5 million for Baltimore to $50,000 each for Worcester, Dorchester, Caroline and Kent counties.
"We've had a wonderful response. All 24 jurisdictions submitted proposals," said Linda Heisner, executive director of Maryland's Child Care Administration.
The idea, said Nancy Weber, chairwoman of Howard County Children's Board, is to develop after-school activities that will grab the interest of children who want to be more independent of their parents and who feel too grown up for day care but need supervision.
"We can be real creative in finding programs that will be of interest," Weber said.
The county wants to attract programs that include learning skills and activities that will make even middle school children say, "'I want to stay after school,'" Weber said.
Jackson said she hopes to have programs end late enough so parents can pick up their children after work.
The North Laurel-Savage area is a particular target, Jackson said, because it appears to have a greater need.
Murray Hill, for example, has the highest transient rate in the county and has lower test scores than other areas of Howard, said Abram.
The school's program has been a great success over the past three years, she said. "It has opened to these kids opportunities that wouldn't [normally] be available at their age."
But "right now we are fighting for funds. We've had to turn kids away," Abram said.